by John

My Grandfather and Grandmother Beatty owned an estate with an apple orchard beside a lake in Oxford, Oakland County, Michigan, in the 1950s and 1960s. When I was a small boy, I was always awe-struck when visiting their house that was filled with fine antique furniture, oil paintings, Oriental rugs, and Chinese porcelain that my grandfather, the owner of a lumber company, avidly collected. On a wall in the guesthouse on the property was a lithograph of an odd-looking nineteenth century man with a beard that jutted down from his jaw-line in the style of Horace Greeley. The picture fascinated me, and I always made a point to study it intently whenever I visited. When I asked my grandfather who he was, he told me proudly that it was his grandfather, Ross Beatty, who had owned a large farm near Leesburg in Kosciusko County, Indiana, during the 19th century. “He was a very fine man,” my grandfather said repeatedly. “He built a Methodist church on his own land where he could worship every day.” In addition to this story, which I heard over and over, Grandpa regaled me with other stories of our family – tales of Irishmen and Indians and pioneer hardship. His favorite collateral ancestor was Rufus King, a first cousin of his great-great grandmother, who had signed the Constitution, served as a senator from New York, and had run unsuccessfully for president on the Federalist ticket against James Monroe in 1816. Grandpa commissioned an artist to copy one of King’s oil portraits and hung it over one of his fireplaces. He was always eager to talk about Rufus. Grandpa also wrote a short family history in the 1940s which he shared with the extended family and which I enjoyed.

And so my interest in family history began. By the time I was eight, I was hooked. I relished the chance to hear the old stories, and I was fortunate that all four of my grandparents were alive to tell me about their ancestors. All were nurturing, loving people who were eager to share their heritage with me. As a small boy I spent hours and hours looking at photo albums and asking questions. The seeds were planted firmly and deeply, but it was not until I was slightly older that I realized genealogy was something one could research in historical sources at libraries and courthouses, and not merely something that grandparents bequeathed to you.

In the early 1970s, my mother was passing through a supermarket check-out lane and off-handedly picked up a paperback copy of Gilbert H. Doane’s Searching for Your Ancestors: The How and Why of Genealogy. It was one of the best gifts I ever received, and I read it over and over. While not entirely a research manual, Doane captured the essence of what was fun about genealogical research – the thrill of the hunt and the amusing and intriguing anecdotes that one often encounters in searching historical records. It only whetted my appetite for more. The publication of Alex Haley’s Roots and the subsequent television series added to the excitement. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I was writing letters to relatives, researching at the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, and visiting graveyards and ancestral farms.

When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1978, I stumbled upon the published Civil War diary of a distant cousin, General John Beatty. General John had predicted in his introduction, written in 1878, that one, two or five hundred years from that time, a wonder-eyed boy, curious youth, or inquisitive old man would stumble on this volume in a library. “Dull and uninteresting as it may be to others, for him it will possess an inexpressible charm. It is his own blood speaking to him from the shadowy and almost forgotten past…In leaving this unpretentious record, I seek to do simply what I would have had my fathers do for me.

I suppose I am not overstating it to say that genealogy, by this time, was more than just a pastime. For me, it had a deepening spiritual resonance. I knew then that the gathering, research, and writing of family history was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It became my calling. Since then I have written a number of books on various branches of my family, chipping away at the many years of research and getting it into print. But I am in no way finished. I am grateful to have worked at The Genealogy Center for almost thirty years now and to be able to share with others what I have learned from experience and from working here. The thrill of genealogy librarianship, however, is that you never stop learning and you get back every bit as much as you give.